Fibromyalgia is not well understood by the general public and medical community alike. Fibromyalgia is not a specific disease but rather a series of complex symptoms such as persistent body-wide pain and tingling sensations, limb weakness, bowel disturbances and an inability to sleep. These symptoms vary from person to person and can come and go during periods of flare-ups. Because fibromyalgia does not present with any physical abnormalities (e.g. there is no visible injury or damage to correspond with complaints of pain), symptoms can be dismissed as ‘whining’. The inconsistency between symptoms and the lack of diagnostic evidence for complaints makes understanding and treating fibromyalgia very difficult.
What Causes Fibromyalgia?
Researchers aren’t entirely sure what causes fibromyalgia. One theory suggests that for some reason fibromyalgia patients have an increased sensitivity to pain. Pain receptors called nociceptors are located in areas such as the skin, muscles and digestive system. Nociceptors will detect pain (e.g. from touching something hot or sharp), and send the signal up the spinal cord to the brain where it is perceived (e.g. ouch!) and the correct action is implemented (e.g. pulling your hand back from a hot stove top). It is believed that in fibromyalgia too many pain signals are sent to the brain for unknown reason. As a result, a mild touch or itch will be perceived as painful. Furthermore, emotional and physical stress (e.g. an illness) can also trigger painful flare-ups.
Other proposed causes of fibromyalgia include:
- Genetic predisposition: Fibromyalgia tends to run in families.
- Stress: Patients with fibromyalgia often have other stress-related symptoms such as post-traumatic stress disorder, irritable bowel syndrome and depression.
- Neurotransmitter dysfunction: Neurotransmitters are chemicals which help send signals along nerves. There may be a problem with dopamine (associated with pain and pain relief) and serotonin (regulates sleep patterns, mood, concentration and pain) neurotransmitters in fibromyalgia.
- Physical trauma to the neck.
How can Fibromyalgia be Treated?
Again, because fibromyalgia symptoms are so diverse, it is necessary to cater a specific treatment plan for the individual.
Cognitive therapy has shown some effectiveness in fibromyalgia and medications such as Pregabalin and Duloxetine may be used to manage pain symptoms. Anti-depressants, anti-seizure medication and muscle relaxants may also be beneficial in some patients. Exercise has been shown to improve pain symptoms and improve sleep patterns in some patients. Diet modification may also be beneficial if patients track and avoid foods that trigger flare-ups.
A Need for Advocacy
Individuals with fibromyalgia fight a daily battle against not only their symptoms, but also friends, family members and health care professionals that may not understand the nature of their condition. Only a person who lives with fibromyalgia knows the reality of this draining condition.
Further research is needed to broaden our understanding of fibromyalgia so that we can target better treatments. If you are interested in participating in a fibromyalgia research study or any other studies at the CCCT, please visit our Trials Page.
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Telephone: (289) 597-0106